Why use organic fabrics for your new baby?

5 10 2011

Illnesses — including remarkable combinations of symptoms — are on the rise.

  • Over the past 50 years, there has been a steady increase in the incidence of children developing cancer[1], asthma[2], attention deficit disorders[3], allergies[4], autoimmune disorders[5],  and others.

So too are the numbers of chemicals getting mixed inside us (studies have shown that babies are born pre-polluted)[6].   Chemicals accumulate, interact within the body, cause illness.

  • This is due to industrial chemicals being used in products that weren’t even formulated prior to about 1950.  Our children are subjected to an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that tax their systems to the max.

Is there a connection between the rise in illnesses and products you use in your home?


  • But inadequate data exists regarding the chronic (long term, low level) health risks of most chemicals, and proving an absolute link between chemicals and these disorders isn’t easy, because in most cases it’s a slow-brewing condition that can smolder for decades before symptoms appear.  Furthermore, the timing of toxic exposure plays a much more significant role than previously recognized – babies exposed during critical periods of development often have a more severe reaction than those exposed at other times.

The chemicals used in textile processing are among the most toxic known, yet the fabrics themselves are often overlooked as a source of pollution.

Using organic products (like fabrics) is especially important for children, because children tend to be more influenced by their environment than adults.  Children are still developing, and many of these developmental processes are very sensitive to environmental contaminants, which can easily disrupt development.  Also, children take in much more of their environment relative to their body weight.   This amount, called the dose, has a much greater effect on children than on the adults around them, because children’s bodies are much smaller.  And finally, children tend to come in contact with environmental contaminants more often than adults do, simply because of their habits – like the two year olds who put everything in their mouths, or toddlers who spend a lot of time in the dust on the floor, where contaminants collect.

In outfitting your nursery, you see lots of information about baby products – lotions, powders, foods.  But please remember that there are other products that impact your child’s health, such as mattresses and fabrics.  You almost never hear somebody mention fabrics as a source of pollution – are they really so important?  Remembering that new studies are demonstrating that even nano doses of chemicals can contribute to disease over time, there are also many studies which specifically linked diseases to chemicals found in textiles:

  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t.[7]
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.[8]
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[9]
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller.[10] Note:  lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs.
  • Many of the chemicals found in fabrics (which are, after all, about 27% synthetic chemicals, by weight) are known to have negative health effects, such as:
    • Disruptions during development (including autism, which now occurs in 1 of every 110 births in the US); attention deficit disorders (ADD) and hyperactivity (ADHD).   Chemicals commonly used in textiles which contribute:
  • Breathing difficulties, including asthma ( in children under 5 asthma has increased 160%  between 1980-1994[11])  and allergies. Chemicals used in textiles which contribute:
    • Formaldehyde, other aldehydes
    • Benzene, toluene
    • phthalates
  • Cancer  –  all childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[12]; the environmental attributable fraction of childhood cancer can be between 5% and 90%, depending on the type of cancer[13].  Chemicals linked to cancers, all of which are used in textile processing:
    • Formaldehyde
    • Lead, cadmium
    • Pesticides
    • Benzene
    • Vinyl chloride

So how do you try to limit your child’s exposure to this chemical contamination?

  • Our #1 recommendation is to use only natural fiber fabrics, rather than synthetics (including those ubiquitous cotton/poly blends), which are petroleum based and made entirely of toxic chemicals.   On top of that, synthetics are highly flammable.  So ditch the synthetics.
  • And don’t think that a fabric made of “organic cotton” is safe, because that doesn’t address the question of processing, where all the chemical contamination occurs.  If you use natural fibers, try to find GOTS  or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Don’t buy clothing or bedding (or anything made of fabric) that has a stain resistant or wrinkle resistant finish on it:  stain resistant finishes contain perfluorochemicals (Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster, Crypton, Nanotex, Gore-Tex) and wrinkle resistant finishes use formaldehyde.
  • Crib mattresses are often made of polyurethane foam enclosed in vinyl covers.  These plastic products are made by combining highly toxic chemicals together to form the final material. When your child is asleep, every breath pulls in air that is literally inches away from the petroleum chemical materials used in the manufacturing of the bed itself.  With each breath, these chemical molecules are pulled across the child’s airways and then transferred to the blood from deep within the lungs. This process is repeated with each breath 365 nights a year.[14]
    Best choice:  Buy a natural latex core covered in organic GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabric.
  • Sleepwear, bedding, even curtains and upholstery fabric – because they’re  made of fabric!  Why should you use organic fabrics – not just fabrics made with organic fibers –  for your baby?  The skin is the largest organ of the body and the skin allows many chemicals to pass into your baby through absorption.  Also, a baby’s skin is thinner and more permeable than an adult’s skin.  Not to mention the fact that many chemicals evaporate, to be breathed in.   Best choice:  GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics.
  • Diapers – first choice would be organic diapers made of natural fibers (GOTS or Oeko Tex certified) – even though it probably means you’ll have to do the diaper laundering.   Hey, there are worse things.

[1] Reinberg,
“US Cancer Rates Continue to Fall”, Business Week, March 31, 2011; all
childhood cancers have grown at about 1% per year for the past two decades[1]

Type 1 diabetes has increased fivefold in past 40 years, in children 4 and
under, it’s increasing 6% per year. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/14/AR2008031403386.html

Goodman, Sarah,  “Tests Find More than
200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood”, Scientific American, December,

Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
, March 16, 2008.

Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
10.1136/oem.2009.049817  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp  AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.

[13] Gouveia-Vigeant,
Tami and Tickner, Joel,  “Toxic Chemicals
and Childhood Cancer:  a review of the
evidence”, U of Massachusetts, May 2003

[14] http://www.chem-tox.com/beds/frame-beds.htm.  See also “Respiratory Toxicity of mattress
emissions in mice”, Archives of Environmental health, 55 (1): 38-43, 2000.



6 responses

5 10 2011

Your excellent work deserves wide attention. In researching the new book Plastic Ocean, which I co-authored, I came across much of this information. But I never saw a reference to BPA, basically epoxy, being present in fabrics. I know sources of exposure would include canned foods, polycarbonate bottles, cups and plates, and no doubt a number of other hard plastic objects in baby’s immediate environment, but I am unaware of BPA use in fabric production. Could you elucidate? Many thanks.

5 10 2011

Hi Cassandra: Thanks so much for your comments – we certainly appreciate a pat on the back occasionally. I had just discovered your book, which is on my “must read” list, so we are doubly thrilled to hear from you! In answer to your question, let me first remind you that we are not chemists but rather interested amateurs, so we must extrapolate as best we can from published literature.
Polymer science, as you know, is extremely complex, and a supple, soft, functional fabric is (according to me, anyway) one of its crowning achievements. BPA (synonyms: 2,2-Bis(4-Hydroxyphenyl)propane, 4,4′-Isopropylidenediphenol or 80-05-7 (CAS number)) is used in many ways other than just to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins (though these resins could be used in high performance coatings and laminations of some fabrics); in the textile industry it is used mainly as an intermediary, in such products as fire resistant finishes, fungicides, pesticides (though use as an ingredient in the USA was disallowed by the EPA in 1999 – however the fiber market is certainly global in scope), production of printing ink binders and textile dye assist compounds, and as a polyvinyl chloride stabilizer. Since it’s used as an intermediate, it’s hard to pin down, because manufacturers keep ingredient lists as trade secrets.
But we do occasionally find references to BPA in the research journals, which are sometimes impossible for us to understand because the chemistry is so dense. One example is that of a publication from Toray industries, Inc., Japan :
Thus, a woven fabric from dimethyl terephthalate-ethylene glycol-sodium di-Me 5-sulfoisophthalate copolymer fibers was treated with a liquor contg. 5% polyethylene glycol bisphenol A ether (2:1) diacrylate for 5 min at 120°, washed, dried, and heat-set at 180° to give a hygroscopic antistatic fabric with good washfastness. (reference: http://www.lookchem.com/cas-644/64401-02-1.html?countryid=0) But one paper from the North Carolina State University College of Textiles, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids” by Christine Grant, Peter Hauser and William Oxenham (see http://www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf) , is clear enough for us to understand:
To overcome the problems caused by the degradation of finishes (in textiles), several additives are introduced to prevent or delay the reactions of oxidation and degradation. Several classes of antioxidants are typically used in industry for the above-mentioned purpose…. Four different antioxidants were selected for experimental purposes. Two of these antioxidants are typical antioxidants used for fiber finishes supplied by Goulston Technologies Inc.; one is a hindered phenolic based and the other antioxidant is based on Bisphenol A. Their exact chemical structures are not known.

5 10 2011

Many thanks, Leigh Ann. I am so not surprised by this given the scandalous cover allowed by trade secret laws. Some of the scrap polyethylene plastics taken by Charlie Moore from Calif. storm drains and analyzed at a certified lab contained phthalates. Hello… PE? You must be familiar with the work of George Bittner at U of Texas. Up to 100 different synthetic chemicals used in feedstock prep, manufacture and finishing of a baby bottle…. In the book we focus on disposable consumer plastics, but they are the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to contaminants.
Have you and Patty considered writing a book?
My great concern is that chemical exposures are causing, among so many other health problems, broad decline in IQ — as lead did. As you’d know, cognitive deficits were correlated with post 9/11 PBDE exposure in a study conducted by Columbia U.’s public health program, confirmed by animal experiments. Thyroid.
Also wish to thank you for providing evidence that soy-foam insulation is not authentically green. Researching this material is how I found your site. I’ve been working with the stuff, chopping and testing it as an orchid growth media amendment. Its effects on plants have been bizarre and troubling. But that’s another story….
Keep up the brilliant work.

19 10 2011
Kelli C.

Wow, I initially was going to comment solely on the content of the post, which, as usual, was extremely resourceful. However, upon reading the commentary, I am overwhelmed, with elation, from this addendum of information. I agree with Cassandra that you and Patty should consider writing a book, even if its a mere compilation of your posts, I believe it would a huge success!
Cassandra, I am certainly going to pick up Plastic Ocean, and look forward to hearing more from you and your research.

11 07 2012
kim nault


I stumbled upon this blog while researching textiles to use for making infant bedding and such. I’ve read several of the blog posts here regarding the different types of fabrics and the processes they undergo, as well as the many reasons for choosing natural organic material. I know I definitely want to use the type of fabric that is best for babies (and the environment), but I’m still not quite sure which to use…and I will most likely end up using several (for different products). I’ve been considering 100% organic cotton: jersey, muslin, percale, and interlock. Would you be able to give me any feedback or your thoughts regarding these materials? Specifically which would be best suited for use with infants/children (humans in general), and which has the least devastating environmental impact? I would appreciate it greatly!

I’ve spent countless hours researching fabrics and materials, and which would be best to use, but I’m beginning to go cross-eyed and am becoming confused reading so many contradicting articles. So far I’ve decided NOT to use: bamboo, viscose, rayon, tencel, modal, lyocell…

I know these are all dangerously soft fabrics, but can you recommend anything similar?

Thank you so much & Aloha,

13 07 2012
O Ecotextiles

Hi Kim: The most important thing to remember is that organic cotton, if processed conventionally, is by weight about 23% synthetic chemicals, not all of them benign. So using organic cotton, though a great step, doesn’t by any means protect an infant from exposure to chemicals that might harm them. So please either work with a trusted supplier (who can answer all your questions!) or buy only third party certified fabrics, such as GOTS or Oeko Tex.

I should put in a plug for not rejecting out of hand some kinds of fibers. All bamboo on the market is viscose, and some viscose (including that made from bamboo) or rayon is safe to be used for infants – again, those that are Oeko Tex certified would be O.K. (Tencel, Modal and Loycell are all brand names for different types of viscose). Good luck.

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